Why equipping youth with digital skills is an opportunity for tech companies and start-ups in Africa


Orange and Refactory will host a side session on digital skills for entrepreneurship and innovation at the Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum on 18 March
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A shortage of skilled talent in Africa is one of the most important challenges faced by tech companies working in the continent, according to Coline Dimbour, EU Affairs Advisor at Orange — one of the world’s largest telecommunications operators, which is currently present in 18 countries in Africa and the Middle East. “For our business, we need specialists in specific services like data analytics and machine learning, which are difficult to recruit in many African countries,” she said.

While employers are already experiencing difficulties finding a workforce fit for their current needs, the gap between digital skills’ supply and demand is expected to become even bigger as Africa’s digital economy continues to grow. A 2019 study by the International Finance Corporation found that by 2030 over 230 million jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa will require digital skills.

At the same time, it is estimated that one-third of Africa’s nearly 420 million young people are unemployed — an immense potential pool of talent that is actively seeking opportunities. “So many people in Africa, particularly youth, are struggling to find jobs,” said Michael Niyitegeka, Refactory Programme Director at Uganda’s Clarke International University. “But the problem is that they don’t have neither the technical knowledge nor the practical tools to succeed in a professional environment.” Refactory is a tailored-made programme that helps youth to develop software development and employability skills to match the growing demand of the tech sector.

Orange has also taken a proactive approach to address this issue. The company has established Orange Digital Centres across the continent, offering training and coaching both on hard and soft skills, as well as accelerating and investing opportunities for start-ups. According to Dimbour, Orange’s partnership with GIZ, operating on behalf of the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), has accelerated the project’s deployment in the Africa and Middle East region.

Many similar initiatives have sprung across the continent in recent years, but they are not enough to meet the high demand. “The problem is that many companies do not want to engage in training schemes and prefer to move to other places where the skills are already there,” added Niyitegeka. “What we need is more private sector engagement and government support, for example creating incentives.”

Orange and Refactory are co-hosting a side session on “Investing in digital skills to unleash Africa’s digital entrepreneurship and innovation potential” at the upcoming Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum, which will take place online on 18 March 2022. During the event, private sector, civil society, and academia will discuss practical recruitment opportunities, experiences establishing tech academies, and the challenges to reach disadvantaged groups, with the purpose of providing practical recommendations for African and European policymakers.

Young people receive training in Orange’s Digital Center in Abidjan. Photo: Orange Africa and Middle East

Digital skills to unlock entrepreneurship and innovation

Digital technologies offer untapped opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation, even in sectors that have traditionally not been tech-oriented, such as agriculture, healthcare, or tourism. As more industries and services turn to digital solutions, however, they will also need to hire more tech-savvy professionals.

According to Niyitegeka, African start-ups and small companies are amongst the most affected by the lack of a skilled workforce. “Even when they can find the talent, they cannot always afford it. We need to support start-ups and small enterprises by creating new partnership structures or even incentives or subsidies. Partners or governments could absorb some of the costs of hiring skilled talent,” he said.

Refactory training programme in Uganda. Photo: Refactory

Fostering multi-stakeholder collaborations

Who should be responsible for developing this much-needed skilled workforce? Government, companies, and academia should work together, suggested the side session co-hosts.

“When it comes to building digital skills, the public and private sector have the same goal”, declared Dimbour. “Public and private actors can really complement each other and avoid duplication of efforts. There are plenty of potential synergies and public-private financial models to enable more young people to access training.”

Refactory’s programme is also based in a multi-stakeholder model, explained Niyitegeka. “What we do is a collaboration between private sector and academia. University curricula are often only focused on theory and research. We need the private sector to get involved to fill the vacuums on practical training.”

What do you think African and European stakeholders can do to support youth to acquire digital skills? To participate in the discussion, register for the Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum here.